by David H. Petersen
This coming October 31 will be the 500th anniversary of the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses. I’ve never had much interest in the theses until recently. That is because they aren’t part of the Book of Concord of 1580 and because they are tied directly to the specific abuses of indulgence sales in northern Germany at the time of Luther. To my knowledge, none of my parishioners has ever thought buying an indulgence would help him escape purgatory, so I’ve focused my attention elsewhere. But a new look at the theses has raised my respect for them, and I would urge you to give them new consideration as well.
Luther was just shy of 34 years old at the time that he posted the theses. His understanding of the Gospel and of faith was still developing, but his peculiar gift for getting at the heart of things was already evident. The themes he establishes and articulates in the theses remained critical and central for Luther to the very end of his life. If you’re feeling distant from Luther in the theses, since he doesn’t talk about justification by faith yet, then take a look at his explanation of the theses from February 1518. In just three months, Luther grew immensely. He doesn’t claim a change. He says what he meant in the theses, and in the explanation, he clearly articulates justification by grace through faith. In any case, already in the theses Luther wants to deal with eternal issues of salvation and nothing else.
Sparking a radical change
He may not have intended to write in the theses a manifesto of Evangelical Theology or spark a radical change in world politics and religion, but he did. As a manifesto, the theses are not nearly as developed as the Smalcald Articles. That document is Luther’s theology distilled and is in the Book of Concord. Nonetheless, the theses are quite impressive, not only because of Luther’s youth when he wrote them but also because he was able to see and articulate what others could not until he pointed it out to them: There was more at stake than simply some indulgence salesmen run amok. The doctrines that drove and allowed indulgence sales had eternal consequences and were dangerous to faith.
As far as a battle cry for change, Luther himself claims that he only wanted to engage in scholarly debate and was shocked by the ruckus that followed. There isn’t time in this blog, but there are some reasons to suspect that Luther might have been being coy with those remarks. It is possible that he might actually have expected and intended to cause a scene in Wittenberg. He might well have had the vain hope that he could cause a public outcry that would force the pope’s hand so that he would stop the sale of indulgences and rein in the scholastics.
Perhaps it is simply the benefit of hindsight, but it does seem rather obvious that given the content and tone of the document, especially in the context of the sale of indulgences, which was being resisted by Frederick the Wise and which were a terrible burden on the people, that the theses would be absolutely inflammatory. It is impossible to imagine a scenario where this sort of speech and topic wouldn’t have caused a public outcry. In any case, it certainly went further than Luther expected. It got out of control quickly. It even put his own life in danger. Is it too much to draw all that , and so much that has happened since, to the single event of Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses? Certainly there was gas on the ground. The air was dry and the wind was blowing that would fan it to flame, but I think it is fair to say that the Ninety-Five Theses were that spark.
Whether it seemed to Luther as though he stumbled upon this powder keg by accident or not, there is no doubt that God was with him and behind the theses. This anniversary year is a good opportunity to look at the theses anew and thank God for them. They reveal more of Luther’s genius and a more deliberate approach than I, at least, used to think, and there is much fruit still to be gained from a careful reading of them.
The Rev. David Petersen is senior pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, Ind.